Novelists Fiddle as the World Burns
Posted by Richard Conniff on February 2, 2015
Are novelists failing to confront the disastrous conservation crises of our time? Nigel Pitman, a conservation ecologist at the Field Museum makes that case in a scathing essay just out. I think he may be neglecting Margaret Atwood, who has campaigned and written along these lines. Jonathan Franzen dealt with environmental treachery in Freedom, and many of the large recent crop of dystopian novels also seem to me to have an environmental undercurrent, as in Station Eleven, though that starts with a pandemic.
But I think Pitman is onto something here, and not just about catastrophe. Reading older novels, I am often struck by how much more richly and knowledgeably writers incorporated the natural world into their work then. Writers now obey the advice to “write what you know,” and what they know is not nature. Here’s Pitman’s lead:
Novelists have a thing for catastrophe.
Something gets blown to bits—and decades later writers are still dropping by for a look, sniffing the air for cordite. The number of novels written about the Vietnam War now exceeds 3,500, which works out to about one novel for every combat platoon at the height of the conflict. The Holocaust, the Soviet purges, and the Ceausescu regime have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and some of them have done it more than once.
Shouldn’t we be baffled, then, by the empty stretch of shelf where one might reasonably expect to find a body of fiction about the greatest catastrophe of our time? These days everyone calls it climate change, but of course it’s not just the weather that has been pistol-whipped over the last 100 years. It’s everything else in the natural world as well: seafloor invertebrate communities, rare plants in Sri Lanka, the phylum Mollusca, you name it.
But if most people are aware by now of the destruction carrying on all around us, you wouldn’t know it from reading modern-day fiction. On the lists of prize-winning American novels published over the last ten years, the number with a strong environmental content — and the number written by authors whohave a published history of interest in that kind of thing — are both close to zero. The same can be said of the year’s-best lists and the bestseller lists. And the vacuum is not unique to the United States. Over the last 50 years South America has lost country-sized expanses of the world’s richest forests and has produced some of the world’s best novelists, but the two phenomena have never shown much interest in each other. All of which begs a question which has itself been strangely absent from the literary landscape: Where are the great conservation novels?
Read Pitman’s whole jeremiad here.